Sports

Coach Rod Brind’Amour, Tar Heel of the Month, helps restore pride in the Canes

Few would dare call Rod Brind’Amour a jerk, certainly not to his face, but he wouldn’t mind it this year.

Brind’Amour and the Carolina Hurricanes became known as the “Bunch of Jerks” in a hockey season that began with a promise, really all the Canes had to offer in October, and ended in the Stanley Cup playoffs, in the Eastern Conference finals this month.

Brind’Amour, in his first year as a head coach, was demanding when he needed to be. His face could be flush with fury and intensity behind the bench during games. He also was honest to a fault — with his players, with team owner Tom Dundon, with the media, with Canes fans.

“The No. 1 thing I was told was you’ve got to be yourself,” Brind’Amour said. “You can’t veer from that. You can’t be phony. Be yourself.”

After a dismal loss in January, Brind’Amour bluntly said, “We were so bad I almost dressed and got out there.” At 48, and in better physical condition than many 28-year-olds, still “Rod the Bod,” the former Canes captain probably could have gone out for a few shifts.

But that wasn’t the point. A point was made to his team, likely the same message that already had been delivered in the locker room after the game and then again in Brind’Amour’s media session. And the Canes were a different team after the coach’s words, surging over the final 35 games of the regular season — they had a 24-9-2 record — to secure their first playoff berth since 2009.

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Carolina Hurricanes’ coach Rod Brind’Amour works with his team during practice on Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

“He just seemed to know when to push the right buttons,” Canes defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said this week in an end-of-season interview. “You’d never know it was his first year as a head coach.”

For the Hurricanes franchise, it was a rebirth of sorts. The glow of their 2006 Stanley Cup championship was long gone and the memories of a 2009 playoff run had faded, and the Canes were being swallowed up more and more by college basketball, by the doings of Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State’s Wolfpack, which shares PNC Arena with the Canes.

“The goal was to get relevant,” Brind’Amour told the media during the playoffs. “I felt like we had kind of fallen off the map. The town, the fans deserved to have a team they can be proud of.”

Brind’Amour did turn around the Hurricanes, making the area and fans proud. And for that, he’s The News & Observer’s May Tar Heel of the Month, which honors people who have made significant contributions to North Carolina and the region. He will be considered later this year as Tar Heel of the Year, the N&O’s annual honor named in December.

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Hurricanes captain Rod Brind’Amour (17) rides in a red convertible as the victory parade for the Stanley Cup Champions begins at St. Mary’s School on St. Mary’s Street on Wednesday morning June 21, 2006. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

‘Bunch of jerks’

After home victories this season at PNC Arena, the Canes players engaged in the Storm Surge, postgame celebrations with unpredictable twists — a Thor hammer strike one night, human bowling the next — that became almost theatrical productions and kept the fans in their seats. That caused outspoken Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry to call the team a “bunch of jerks,” comments that were marketing gold for the Hurricanes, and for many fans made the Hurricanes a team to watch, follow and support.

It may not have reached a Zion Williamson-level of hype and social-media attention, but for the Hurricanes, it was a boon. Attendance rose. Many, it seemed, wanted to be a part of this Canes’ resurgence, to be a part of the “jerks.”

“We were selling hope,” general manager Don Waddell said in a press conference during the playoffs. “Now we’re selling reality.”

At the helm was Brind’Amour, who first came to the Hurricanes on Jan. 23, 2000, when the center was traded from the Philadelphia Flyers. He was wide-eyed and seemingly a bit bewildered that day at his press conference in Raleigh, but he quickly settled in with his new team and gained admirers as he always has, with a work ethic almost unmatched, on and off the ice.

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Carolina Hurricanes’ captain Rod Brind’Amour (17) returns to the ice during a shift change in the third period on Tuesday April 21, 2009 at RBC Center. ROBERT WILLETT -robert.willett@newsobserver.com Robert Willett robert.willett@newsobserver.com

Lifting the Stanley Cup

Brind’Amour likes to note that growing up in Western Canada, his first sports memory with any North Carolina tie was N.C. State winning the 1983 NCAA basketball championship — coach Jim Valvano and the Cardiac Pack. And there was that North Carolina star, the one who wore No. 23 for the Tar Heels. “Everyone wanted to be Michael Jordan in our backyard games,” he said.

Brind’Amour, raised in Campbell River, B.C., would become another of the work-related transplants to North Carolina and the Triangle. For more than 19 years, Raleigh has been his home.

“I never would have imagined that possible,” Brind’Amour recently said in an interview with the News & Observer. “I feel blessed.”

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As a player, there may have been only one time Brind’Amour was truly happy and fulfilled. That was in 2006, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman handed him the Stanley Cup and the Canes captain raised it high over his head in victory, his face ecstatic, his teammates surrounding him, a dream accomplished.

Brind’Amour’s 20-year playing career ended four years later in June 2010, when he retired, and he had his jersey, No. 17, retired by the Hurricanes the next year. He’s a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and others, and many believe he deserves a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Maybe one year.

“He played at such a high level for such a long time and understood both ends of the ice probably better than anybody,” Matt Cullen, a forward on the 2006 Stanley Cup champion team, said in an interview with the N&O. “To have that kind of experience over that many games and play in every situation imaginable, I’m not surprised at all he’s a successful coach. His mindset, and the way he goes about working and committing himself, he’s a guy that whatever he decides to do he’ll be successful at because of that commitment.”

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A 2006 photo shows Rod Brind’Amour hoisting the Stanley Cup as he and his teammates celebrate defeating the Edmonton Oilers to win the Stanley Cup Championship. Ted Richardson News & Observer file photo

A leap of faith

Former Canes general manager Jim Rutherford persuaded Brind’Amour to stay involved with the organization after he retired, to became a development coach for the forwards in the team’s system. It was a part-time situation, allowing Brind’Amour to be away and coach his son’s youth hockey team in Raleigh, but Rutherford was soon proposing more — a coaching job.

“He grabbed me and said, ‘You need to do this,’” Brind’Amour said in a press conference during the playoffs. “We talked about it, all the hours. I’ve done that all my life, (put in) the hours but this would be 10 times more hours. You have to weigh all the pros and cons of the time commitment.”

The pros won out. Brind’Amour eased into coaching, first under former Canes coach Paul Maurice, then as a full-time assistant on Kirk Muller’s staff and later under former coach Bill Peters.

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The Carolina Hurricanes retire the No. 17 sweater of Rod Brind’Amour during ceremonies on Friday February 18, 2011 at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

“There’s lots of guys who love the game but don’t want to coach but Rod was always wired right into the game and all parts of it and would do whatever he could to get better,” Maurice, who’s now the Winnipeg Jets head coach, said in an interview with the N&O. “You need to have that drive, and he always had it.”

When Peters resigned after the 2017-18 season, Brind’Amour wanted the head coaching job, saying it was time. Dundon agreed, saying he believed Brind’Amour was “one of those people who can get more out of people than they may have known they have.”

Still, it was a leap of faith. As veteran center Jordan Staal said in his end-of-season media scrum, “I’m sure he was learning along the way. You’ve got to start somewhere. And he was just him. He never changed at all. He made it easy to follow him.”

‘I learned I could handle it’

Brind’Amour and the “Jerks” brought it home. For the first time in a decade there was playoff hockey in April and May as so many in the Triangle and state adopted a “Let’s go, Canes!” mentality. A pig named Hamilton became a good-luck charm and national sensation. The PNC Arena tailgates were festive, the games exciting, the community engaged.

Many in the NHL expected the Canes to bow out in the first round of the playoffs, faced with trying to oust the Washington Capitals, the 2018 Stanley Cup champs. Instead, the Canes knocked out the Caps with a double-overtime victory in Game 7 and swept the New York Islanders before losing in four straight games to the Boston Bruins in the conference finals.

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Carolina Hurricanes’ coach Rod Brind’Amour works with his players during his first game as head coach, late in the third period against the New York Islanders on Thursday, October 4, 2018 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Brind’Amour, at one point in the playoffs, said coaching was “overrated” and that the players do the playing. He knew better, and later said, in retrospect, that he did learn one thing about himself as a head coach in the course of what became a special season.

“I learned I could handle it,” Brind’Amour said in press conference after the final loss to the Bruins. “As a new guy coming in the league you’re never quite sure if the way you’re going to do it is going to be OK. You have nothing to look back on to see if it can work. I think I can handle it.”

Tar Heel of the Month Rod Brind’Amour

Age: 48

Hometown: Raleigh (born Ottawa, Ont.)

Family: Wife, Amy Biedenbach Brind’Amour; sons, Brooks, Skyler and Reece; daughter, Briley.

Education: Attended Michigan State 1988-89.

Accomplishments: Played more than 20 seasons in the NHL, winning the 2006 Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes and serving as team captain; won the Frank J. Selke Trophy as league’s best defensive forward, 2005-06 and 2006-07; Played in NHL All-Star Game 1992; represented Canada in Winter Olympics, 1998 and World Cup of Hockey, 1996; As first-year NHL head coach, led the Hurricanes to a 46-29-7 record and their first Stanley Cup playoff berth since 2009; Member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, Philadelphia Flyers Hall of Fame. Had his jersey, No. 17, retired by the Hurricanes on Feb. 18, 2011.

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.
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